Wednesday, August 28, 2013

More photo projects: Contre Jour Figures

 Contre-jour: against the light. One series of our photos explores this effect.  This post first demonstrates some of our sources, then discusses a few photos.

 Jean-François Millet repeated this twilight effect (especially in his drawings), silhouetting peasant bodies against a darkening sky.

At times, figures are just barely seen against the night.  This moody and dark aspect of Millet's work appealed to many later nineteenth century artists, including Georges Seurat, Vincent Van Gogh, and  Symbolists such as Odilon Redon.
Jean-François Millet, Starry Night, ca. 1850-65. Yale University Art Gallery

Millet, Flight into Egypt.

Seurat, Plowing, 1882-3, conté crayon on paper, Musée d'Orsay.

In one unusual drawing of a Gleaner, Millet's horizon is so low that the figure seems to loom against the evening sky like a caryatid. The seventeenth century Le Nain brothers and their followers had used this device in their heroic peasant paintings, and many late nineteenth-century naturalists repeat this monumentalizing formula.

Louis Le Nain,  Landscape with figures, or the Resting Horseman (La Halte du Cavalier)
c. 1640s,  V & A,  London.

Master of the Processions (Le Nain Follower) Procession of the Ram. mid 17th-century, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Francis Tattegrain, Wreck Scavenger, c. 1881, Boulogne sur Mer

Francis Tattegrain's painting of a girl burdened with the picked remains of a shipwreck again uses this low horizon, which serves to monumentalize her form and emphasize her ungainly burden. Like the Guillou painting of the seaweed harvester, this image represents the marginal activities of those who live on and by the Atlantic.

Thinking of what filmmaker Agnes Varda called the "modest gesture of the gleaner" that picks up and revalues the discarded, Toby and I, while at a residency at the Ray Wells Dune Shack in Provincetown, made some images of heroic figures-- some scavengers, some dispossessed, some wayward shepherds on the ridge of a dune.

Millet's contre-jour shepherd, along with his flock, are like  cut out flat ornament or a spine on the edge of a hill.

  This was an effect that we also explored during our residency in 2012.

Millet's painting of a spinning shepherdess, from a time he spent in the Auvergne in central France, has a wonderful tapestry of color that describes the hill and takes up about two thirds of the canvas.

In this earlier photo from 2010 when we had just started thinking about this effect of human scale in the landscape, Toby is at the top of a ridge at Boundbrook, in Wellfleet, with his dog Gracie prancing through the low gorse and hog-cranberry.

In this vein of the figure on the ridge, I encountered a remarkable, small painting at the RISD museum: James Tissot 's Dance of Death, in which a group of festive, medieval dancers frolic downhill at twilight. They are back-lit and silhouetted, an effect that picks out every gesture and each tendril of hair. From a time when the French artist was influenced by British Pre-Raphaelitism, this is an odd image of reckless or even manic joy in the face of death-- unmistakable in the central, fallen figure.

James Tissot, The Dance of Death, 1860, RISD Museum, Providence.

And of course it looks so much like the final image of Ingmar Bergman's iconic film set at the time of the Black Death, The Seventh Seal (1857).

Also in our residency, we worked on more images of what Van Gogh called "orphan men."
I will pick up on these images with the next post on our photos.

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